To our readers
Beginning today, we're taking you on a virtual journey to help tackle one of our community's most intractable problems. This week and occasionally throughout the year we'll report on urban school districts in the United States where educators have proved the most successful in teaching poor, minority students. We hope our “Field Trip” helps the Omaha School Board, its new superintendent, Nancy Sebring, and all educators, policymakers and citizens who seek the best for disadvantaged children.
— Executive Editor Mike Reilly
Sunday: Urban schools playbook
Monday: Measurable goals
Tuesday: Data-driven instruction
Wednesday: Strong principals
Thursday: Effective teachers
Boston Public Schools officials don't sidestep their district's shortcomings. Nor do they talk in general terms about the improvements they want to see.
Instead, Boston schools are operating under a five-year strategic plan called the “Acceleration Agenda,” which outlines how the district intends to boost student achievement — and gives specific targets for test scores, graduation rates and other key measures.
Boston's plan doesn't merely call for early childhood programs to help youngsters get a good start in school. It sets a goal of having 80 percent of first-graders reading at or above grade level by 2014.
The plan doesn't just talk broadly about academic excellence and rigorous courses. It says 100 percent of students should take at least one honors, Advanced Placement or other college-level course during high school.
The plan isn't a general call for higher graduation rates. It sets targets for the 10th-grade exams that Massachusetts students must pass before earning a diploma, and it aims to have 80 percent of high schoolers graduate.
Boston's approach is mirrored in other high-achieving urban districts that take a focused approach to dealing with challenges such as poverty and low student achievement. They start with high expectations and ensure that all their efforts — curriculum, teaching strategies, support programs — are working toward the same goals.
The plans, approved by local school boards, set measurable goals and promise public accountability.
In Boston, for example, each goal in the five-year plan comes with annual interim benchmarks. And every year, the district records its results on a public website — even when its progress falls short.
Omaha is only beginning to follow that strategic planning model.
What OPS calls its strategic plan is a working document recently crafted by district administrators. It had not been made public — or even presented to the school board — until The World-Herald requested it earlier this year.
District officials say the broad aims in the plan were based on board goals set in the late 1990s. The school board has not discussed the plan.
Recently hired OPS Superintendent Nancy Sebring declined to talk specifically about the OPS strategic plan until she starts work this summer.
But Sebring, former head of the Des Moines school district, said plans are most valuable when they are concise, efficient and understandable.
“You literally can't have hundreds of goals,” she said.
School districts need to continuously monitor their results to see whether their efforts are working, Sebring said. Unfortunately, she said, most strategic plans never include this mandate: “Stop doing the stuff that doesn't work.”
After Sebring takes over, the OPS school board intends to delve into the strategic planning process and update the district's goals.
Even so, OPS board President Freddie Gray said the current lack of a board-approved strategic plan isn't keeping the district from making smart plans for boosting student achievement.
“Everything is now being aligned,” Gray said. “This district, I've never seen it shy away from fixing what needs to be fixed.”
The administration's new strategic plan does set out general district priorities, such as higher graduation rates and improved school attendance, and it outlines strategies intended to meet those goals.
ReNae Kehrberg, OPS assistant superintendent for curriculum and learning, said the plan is a way to align the district's recent education initiatives with the improvement plans that individual schools have been writing annually for years.
Education researchers say a unified plan is a key to making progress in large urban districts. Reform efforts work best in districts that pursue a systemwide approach, according to a report last fall by the Council of Great City Schools.
The same report urges districts to continuously evaluate the effectiveness of programs “and be your own toughest critic.”
The OPS plan calls for using various statistics such as test scores, attendance rates and teacher turnover to measure success. It doesn't identify specific district targets, however.
In contrast, the strategic plan for the Long Beach (Calif.) Unified School District has straightforward, concise goals posted on the district's website.
They include graduating 90 percent of students by 2016, boosting the percentage of eighth-graders who take algebra by 3 percent a year and raising the number of kids proficient in math and reading by 3 percent a year.
While the OPS plan doesn't describe any consequences for schools that don't meet their individual goals, Boston's “Acceleration Agenda” spells out that low-achieving schools are subject to being closed or having their principal and teachers replaced.
Omaha's strategic planning gap was highlighted at a special school board session last November. As part of its superintendent hiring effort, board members held a meeting facilitated by Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, to brainstorm their vision for the district.
At one point, Casserly prodded the board to tie performance indicators — data on test scores, disciplinary cases, enrollment in certain types of courses — to district aims.
“It sounds like you've got data,” Casserly told the board. “But you don't necessarily use your data in a way that assesses whether or not progress is made on your aims, or that you hold the administration accountable for some progress.”
For instance, he said, if the OPS board has a goal of safe schools, then the board should get regular reports on incidents of weapons in schools. Otherwise, he said, the public might see the laudable goal of safe schools as “empty” or “hollow.”
“Part of your responsibility as a board is to see that there's progress on those aims,” Casserly told them. “If you don't ask for the data, in conjunction with monitoring school district progress, then you've abdicated your responsibility.”
Gray agrees that the board needs to see concrete measures of whether district efforts are successful.
While accountability is a key benefit, strategic plans have other positive aspects for school districts that want to improve.
Joseph Johnson, executive director of the San Diego-based National Center for Urban School Transformation, said effective plans provide a sense of hope to teachers and principals who might have become discouraged by the challenges they face.
“If I believe that, ‘Hey, my district has a really solid, logical plan, my district leaders are serious about this, they're paying attention to this, this seems like this could work,' I don't feel like I'm in this sloshing through by myself.”
In Boston, the “Acceleration Agenda” plan created by Superintendent Carol Johnson builds on the district's gains under two previous plans by the former superintendent, Thomas Payzant. Payzant is credited with turning around a Boston district that had been struggling in the early 1990s.
Boston's plan is explicit about bringing success to all students.
“It is motivated by a strong sense of urgency — that every child has only one opportunity to receive a high-quality education,” the plan says. “Only when we directly confront these challenges, commit to addressing them and hold ourselves and others accountable for results will we overcome them.”
Boston hasn't overcome its challenges yet. It has numerous low-performing schools, and while the plan's benchmark scorecard shows improvement in most areas during the first few years, the gains often have fallen short of the targets.
For example, Boston's goal last year was to have 75 percent of first-graders reading at grade level — up from 57 percent two years earlier. The district hit 67 percent instead.
But Boston beat its interim target last year for encouraging more eighth-graders to take Algebra I. Not counting top students who qualify for certain district schools by passing an admissions test, 25 percent of eighth-graders took the course — up from 4 percent two years earlier.
Boston officials say the goals in their five-year plan require them to examine what they're doing and prioritize their efforts.
In order to hit the goal of having 40 percent of eighth-graders taking algebra by 2013-14, principals and teachers are looking at how they teach foundational math skills during earlier years — even as far back as kindergarten.
Almi Abeyta, a Boston administrator, said officials have looked at the schooling patterns of students who opt to take algebra in eighth grade to assess whether certain elementary schools are preparing them better.
Boston Academic Superintendent Domenic Amara said the district has become more focused in how it spends instructional time and resources. Educators concentrate on the programs that help meet the district's goals and may shed others that are less important.
“It's one big plan, rather than a fragmented approach,” Amara said.
Boston is one of the urban districts where low-income and minority students score best on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And its scores for such students have gone up.
For example, Boston's low-income, black fourth-graders score better on the NAEP math test than their peers nationwide. Similar students in Nebraska, meanwhile, score worse than the national average. And while the Boston average has climbed 15 points since 2003, scores rose just 6 points in Nebraska during the same period.
Another high-scoring urban district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, uses its strategic plan to guide its budget decisions. Ann Clark, the district's chief academic officer, said every budget item is aligned with a specific aspect of the strategic plan. The plan also has benchmarks that allow the district to recognize progress or acknowledge a lack of progress.
“Everything the district does lines up underneath the strategic plan,” Clark said. “It helps drive the work and give purpose to the work and holds everybody in the district accountable.”
World-Herald staff writers Joe Dejka and Jeffrey Robb contributed to this report.
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